MIAMI (NewsNation) — Floridians are dealing with a surge in Burmese pythons. While the snakes aren’t native to the Sunshine State, they’re wreaking havoc on the Everglades ecosystem.
According to an ambitious new paper produced by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Florida python population has exploded in only 20 years from a few snakes at the southern tip of Everglades National Park to an invasion that envelops the southern third of the state.
The study called the state’s python problem “one of the most intractable invasive-species management issues across the globe.”
The reptile’s “invasion front” has recently rolled through Broward and Palm Beach counties and is moving northward up the state. The current front encompasses the southern end of Lake Okeechobee and is pushing westward north of Fort Myers.
The study, which meticulously synthesizes several decades’ worth of findings from more than 250 research initiatives, assesses where we stand in the python invasion and how we might slow it.
The success of these snakes, which are native to Southeast Asia, and came here via the exotic pet trade, has been a cataclysmic failure for South Florida ecosystems, the study said.
To put it simply, the snakes are very much on the move, butting up against civilization and heading north. And how far it will go depends on several factors, including climate change.
Pythons found in Florida have measured longer than 15 feet and have weighed in excess of 200 pounds; even hatchlings can be more than two feet long, the study found.
“If left out there to continue to eat and grow, they can become monsters, basically they can become 18-foot monsters if left out there,” said Donna Kalil, a python elimination specialist with the South Florida Waste Management District.
The largest invasive python in Florida measured 18.7 feet long, weighed 213.8 pounds and was a big momma, carrying 122 eggs. They normally lay 11-84 eggs per clutch, but studies suggest an average of 34 in the wilds of Florida.
Kalil has captured more than 700 snakes since 2017, which is when she started working as a specialist.
“You can’t be afraid, you can’t hesitate. You have to go up to the python, come from behind, grab it behind the head by the neck, and grab it with both hands and hold the rest of the body because it’s going to try to strangle you,” she explained.
For decades, pythons have devastated different species in the Everglades. That’s why groups like Tobie’s Troop wrangle as many as possible.
According to the study, little is known about how long Burmese pythons live in the wild in Florida, how often they reproduce and especially how large the state’s python population has grown.
Nor is it known how exactly they travel. However, the study suggests that South Florida’s canals and levees “may facilitate long-distance movement by pythons,” though it suggested that slithering and swimming to points north may take a while.
“One python transited continuously for 58.5 hours and traveled 2.43 kilometers in a single day,” the review said of a snake followed with radio tracking.
“They’re affecting the whole web of life down here in South Florida, not only Everglades National Park,” Kalil said.
The state has tried to curb the number of pythons for years. Utilizing what they call “tools” like the state’s Python Challenge, an annual 10-day event where hunters cruise backroads and canals and slog through swamps to catch and euthanize as many snakes as they can. Last year’s Challenge totaled 231 dead snakes.
The state also pays contractors to catch snakes.
Some hunters used trained dogs to sniff the snakes out, and biologists have implanted tracking devices in certain snakes and followed them to breeding aggregations, where they can snag several in a small area.
Another nascent but promising concept is to put tracking collars on prey such as possums and racoons. Snakes are so ubiquitous that the mammals are eventually eaten, usually by a larger snake.
The collar stays in the snake’s digestive tract for some time, and biologists can track the collar to the snake.
This method recently led researchers to two massive female pythons full of egg follicles in Key Largo. The snakes were humanely euthanized.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.